The Hidden Oracle/8
“Oh.” Meg nodded. “That would suck.”
I found it strange that Meg, a street urchin and Dumpster warrior, would relate so well to garden metaphors, but Chiron was an excellent teacher. He had picked up on something about the girl…an impression that had been lurking in the back of my mind as well. I hoped I was wrong about what it meant, but with my luck, I would be right. I usually was.
“So where is Rachel Dare?” I asked. “Perhaps if I spoke with her…?”
Chiron set down his tea. “Rachel planned to visit us during her winter vacation, but she never did. It might not mean anything….”
I leaned forward. It was not unheard of for Rachel Dare to be late. She was artistic, unpredictable, impulsive, and rule-averse—all qualities I dearly admired. But it wasn’t like her not to show up at all.
“Or?” I asked.
“Or it might be part of the larger problem,” Chiron said. “Prophecies are not the only things that have failed. Travel and communication have become difficult in the last few months. We haven’t heard from our friends at Camp Jupiter in weeks. No new demigods have arrived. Satyrs aren’t reporting from the field. Iris messages no longer work.”
“Iris what?” Meg asked.
“Two-way visions,” I said. “A form of communication overseen by the rainbow goddess. Iris has always been flighty….”
“Except that normal human communications are also on the fritz,” Chiron said. “Of course, phones have always been dangerous for demigods—”
“Yeah, they attract monsters,” Meg agreed. “I haven’t used a phone in forever.”
“A wise move,” Chiron said. “But recently our phones have stopped working altogether. Mobile, landline, Internet…it doesn’t seem to matter. Even the archaic form of communication known as e-mail is strangely unreliable. The messages simply don’t arrive.”
“Did you look in the junk folder?” I offered.
“I fear the problem is more complicated,” Chiron said. “We have no communication with the outside world. We are alone and understaffed. You are the first newcomers in almost two months.”
I frowned. “Percy Jackson mentioned nothing of this.”
“I doubt Percy is even aware,” Chiron said. “He’s been busy with school. Winter is normally our quietest time. For a while, I was able to convince myself that the communication failures were nothing but an inconvenient happenstance. Then the disappearances started.”
In the fireplace, a log slipped from the andiron. I may or may not have jumped in my seat.
“The disappearances, yes.” I wiped drops of tea from my pants and tried to ignore Meg’s snickering. “Tell me about those.”
“Three in the last month,” Chiron said. “First it was Cecil Markowitz from the Hermes cabin. One morning his bunk was simply empty. He didn’t say anything about wanting to leave. No one saw him go. And in the past few weeks, no one has seen or heard from him.”
“Children of Hermes do tend to sneak around,” I offered.
“At first, that’s what we thought,” said Chiron. “But a week later, Ellis Wakefield disappeared from the Ares cabin. Same story: empty bunk, no signs that he had either left on his own or was…ah, taken. Ellis was an impetuous young man. It was conceivable he might have charged off on some ill-advised adventure, but it made me uneasy. Then this morning we realized a third camper had vanished: Miranda Gardiner, head of the Demeter cabin. That was the worst news of all.”
Meg swung her feet off the armrest. “Why is that the worst?”
“Miranda is one of our senior counselors,” Chiron said. “She would never leave on her own without notice. She is too smart to be tricked away from camp, and too powerful to be forced. Yet something happened to her…something I can’t explain.”
The old centaur faced me. “Something is very wrong, Apollo. These problems may not be as alarming as the rise of Kronos or the awakening of Gaea, but in a way I find them even more unsettling, because I have never seen anything like this before.”
I recalled my dream of the burning sun bus. I thought of the voices I’d heard in the woods, urging me to wander off and find their source.
“These demigods…” I said. “Before they disappeared, did they act unusual in any way? Did they report…hearing things?”
Chiron raised an eyebrow. “Not that I am aware of. Why?”
I was reluctant to say more. I didn’t want to cause a panic without knowing what we were facing. When mortals panic, it can be an ugly scene, especially if they expect me to fix the problem.
Also, I will admit I felt a bit impatient. We had not yet addressed the most important issues—mine.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that our first priority is to bend all the camp’s resources to helping me regain my divine state. Then I can assist you with these other problems.”
Chiron stroked his beard. “But what if the problems are connected, my friend? What if the only way to restore you to Olympus is by reclaiming the Oracle of Delphi, thus freeing the power of prophecy? What if Delphi is the key to it all?”
I had forgotten about Chiron’s tendency to lay out obvious and logical conclusions that I tried to avoid thinking about. It was an infuriating habit.
“In my present state, that’s impossible.” I pointed at Meg. “Right now, my job is to serve this demigod, probably for a year. After I’ve done whatever tasks she assigns me, Zeus will judge that my sentence has been served, and I can once again become a god.”
Meg pulled apart a Fig Newton. “I could order you to go to this Delphi place.”
“No!” My voice cracked in midshriek. “You should assign me easy tasks—like starting a rock band, or just hanging out. Yes, hanging out is good.”
Meg looked unconvinced. “Hanging out isn’t a task.”
“It is if you do it right. Camp Half-Blood can protect me while I hang out. After my year of servitude is up, I’ll become a god. Then we can talk about how to restore Delphi.”
Preferably, I thought, by ordering some demigods to undertake the quest for me.
“Apollo,” Chiron said, “if demigods keep disappearing, we may not have a year. We may not have the strength to protect you. And, forgive me, but Delphi is your responsibility.”
I tossed up my hands. “I wasn’t the one who opened the Doors of Death and let Python out! Blame Gaea! Blame Zeus for his bad judgment! When the giants started to wake, I drew up a very clear Twenty-Point Plan of Action to Protect Apollo and Also You Other Gods, but he didn’t even read it!”
Meg tossed half of her cookie at Seymour’s head. “I still think it’s your fault. Hey, look! He’s awake!”
She said this as if the leopard had decided to wake up on his own rather than being beaned in the eye with a Fig Newton.
“RARR,” Seymour complained.
Chiron wheeled his chair back from the table. “My dear, in that jar on the mantel, you’ll find some Snausages. Why don’t you feed him dinner? Apollo and I will wait on the porch.”
We left Meg happily making three-point shots into Seymour’s mouth with the treats.
Once Chiron and I reached the porch, he turned his wheelchair to face me. “She’s an interesting demigod.”
“Interesting is such a nonjudgmental term.”
“She really summoned a karpos?”
“Well…the spirit appeared when she was in trouble. Whether she consciously summoned it, I don’t know. She named him Peaches.”
Chiron scratched his beard. “I have not seen a demigod with the power to summon grain spirits in a very long time. You know what it means?”
My feet began to quake. “I have my suspicions. I’m trying to stay positive.”
“She guided you out of the woods,” Chiron noted. “Without her—”
“Yes,” I said. “Don’t remind me.”
It occurred to me that I’d seen that keen look in Chiron’s eyes before—when he’d assessed Achilles’s sword technique and Ajax’s skill with a spear. It was the look of a seasoned coach scouting new talent. I’d never dreamed the centaur would look at me that way, as if I had something to prove to him, as if my mettle were untested. I felt so…so objectified.
“Tell me,” Chiron said, “what did you hear in the woods?”
I silently cursed my big mouth. I should not have asked whether the missing demigods had heard anything strange.
I decided it was fruitless to hold back now. Chiron was more perceptive than your average horse-man. I told him what I’d experienced in the forest, and afterward in my dream.
His hands curled into his lap blanket. The bottom of it rose higher above his red sequined pumps. He looked about as worried as it is possible for a man to look while wearing fishnet stockings.
“We will have to warn the campers to stay away from the forest,” he decided. “I do not understand what is happening, but I still maintain it must be connected to Delphi, and your present…ah, situation. The Oracle must be liberated from the monster Python. We must find a way.”
I translated that easily enough: I must find a way.
Chiron must have read my desolate expression.
“Come, come, old friend,” he said. “You have done it before. Perhaps you are not a god now, but the first time you killed Python it was no challenge at all! Hundreds of storybooks have praised the way you easily slew your enemy.”
“Yes,” I muttered. “Hundreds of storybooks.”
I recalled some of those stories: I had killed Python without breaking a sweat. I flew to the mouth of the cave, called him out, unleashed an arrow, and BOOM!—one dead giant snake monster. I became Lord of Delphi, and we all lived happily ever after.
How did storytellers get the idea that I vanquished Python so quickly?
All right…possibly it’s because I told them so. Still, the truth was rather different. For centuries after our battle, I had bad dreams about my old foe.
Now I was almost grateful for my imperfect memory. I could not recollect all of the nightmarish details of my fight with Python, but I did know he had been no pushover. I had needed all my godly strength, my divine powers, and the world’s most deadly bow.
What chance would I have as a sixteen-year-old mortal with acne, hand-me-down clothes, and the nom de guerre Lester Papadopoulos? I was not going to charge off to Greece and get myself killed, thank you very much, especially not without my sun chariot or the ability to teleport. I’m sorry; gods do not fly commercial.
I tried to figure out how to explain this to Chiron in a calm, diplomatic way that did not involve stomping my feet or screaming. I was saved from the effort by the sound of a conch horn in the distance.
“That means dinner.” The centaur forced a smile. “We will talk more later, eh? For now, let’s celebrate your arrival.”
Ode to a hot dog
With bug juice and tater chips
I got nothing, man
I WAS NOT IN THE MOOD TO CELEBRATE.
Especially sitting at a picnic table eating mortal food. With mortals.
The dining pavilion was pleasant enough. Even in winter, the camp’s magical borders shielded us from the worst of the elements. Sitting outdoors in the warmth of the torches and braziers, I felt only slightly chilly. Long Island Sound glittered in the light of the moon. (Hello, Artemis. Don’t bother to say hi.) On Half-Blood Hill, the Athena Parthenos glowed like the world’s largest nightlight. Even the woods did not seem so creepy with the pine trees blanketed in soft silvery fog.
My dinner, however, was less than poetic. It consisted of hot dogs, potato chips, and a red liquid I was told was bug juice. I did not know why humans consumed bug juice, or from which type of bug it had been extracted, but it was the tastiest part of the meal, which was disconcerting.
I sat at the Apollo table with my children Austin, Kayla, and Will, plus Nico di Angelo. I could see no difference between my table and any of the other gods’ tables. Mine should have been shinier and more elegant. It should have played music or recited poetry upon command. Instead it was just a slab of stone with benches on either side. I found the seating uncomfortable, though my offspring didn’t seem to mind.
Austin and Kayla peppered me with questions about Olympus, the war with Gaea, and what it felt like to be a god and then a human. I knew they did not mean to be rude. As my children, they were inherently inclined to the utmost grace. However, their questions were painful reminders of my fallen status.
Besides, as the hours passed, I remembered less and less about my divine life. It was alarming how fast my cosmically perfect neurons had deteriorated. Once, each memory had been like a high-definition audio file. Now those recordings were on wax cylinders. And believe me, I remember wax cylinders. They did not last long in the sun chariot.
Will and Nico sat shoulder to shoulder, bantering good-naturedly. They were so cute together it made me feel desolate. It jogged my memories of those few short golden months I’d shared with Hyacinthus before the jealousy, before the horrible accident…
“Nico,” I said at last, “shouldn’t you be sitting at the Hades table?”
He shrugged. “Technically, yes. But if I sit alone at my table, strange things happen. Cracks open in the floor. Zombies crawl out and start roaming around. It’s a mood disorder. I can’t control it. That’s what I told Chiron.”
“And is it true?” I asked.
Nico smiled thinly. “I have a note from my doctor.”
Will raised his hand. “I’m his doctor.”
“Chiron decided it wasn’t worth arguing about,” Nico said. “As long as I sit at a table with other people, like…oh, these guys for instance…the zombies stay away. Everybody’s happier.”
Will nodded serenely. “It’s the strangest thing. Not that Nico would ever misuse his powers to get what he wants.”
“Of course not,” Nico agreed.
I glanced across the dining pavilion. As per camp tradition, Meg had been placed with the children of Hermes, since her godly parentage had not yet been determined. Meg didn’t seem to mind. She was busy re-creating the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest all by herself. The other two girls, Julia and Alice, watched her with a mixture of fascination and horror.
Across the table from her sat an older skinny boy with curly brown hair—Connor Stoll, I deduced, though I’d never been able to tell him apart from his older brother, Travis. Despite the darkness, Connor wore sunglasses, no doubt to protect his eyes from a repeat poking. I also noted that he wisely kept his hands away from Meg’s mouth.
In the entire pavilion, I counted nineteen campers. Most sat alone at their respective tables—Sherman Yang for Ares; a girl I did not know for Aphrodite; another girl for Demeter. At the Nike table, two dark-haired young ladies who were obviously twins conversed over a war map. Chiron himself, again in full centaur form, stood at the head table, sipping his bug juice as he chatted with two satyrs, but their mood was subdued. The goat-men kept glancing at me, then eating their silverware, as satyrs tend to do when nervous. Half a dozen gorgeous dryads moved between the tables, offering food and drink, but I was so preoccupied I couldn’t fully appreciate their beauty. Even more tragic: I felt too embarrassed to flirt with them. What was wrong with me?
I studied the campers, hoping to spot some potential servants…I mean new friends. Gods always like to keep a few strong veteran demigods handy to throw into battle, send on dangerous quests, or pick the lint off our togas. Unfortunately, no one at dinner jumped out at me as a likely minion. I longed for a bigger pool of talent.
“Where are the…others?” I asked Will.
I wanted to say the A-List, but I thought that might be taken the wrong way.
Will took a bite of his pizza. “Were you looking for somebody in particular?”
“What about the ones who went on that quest with the boat?”
Will and Nico exchanged a look that might have meant, Here we go. I suppose they got asked a lot about the seven legendary demigods who had fought side by side with the gods against Gaea’s giants. It pained me that I had not gotten to see those heroes again. After any major battle, I liked to get a group photo—along with exclusive rights to compose epic ballads about their exploits.
“Well,” Nico started, “you saw Percy. He and Annabeth are spending their senior year in New York. Hazel and Frank are at Camp Jupiter doing the Twelfth Legion thing.”
“Ah, yes.” I tried to bring up a clear mental picture of Camp Jupiter, the Roman enclave near Berkeley, California, but the details were hazy. I could only remember my conversations with Octavian, the way he’d turned my head with his flattery and promises. That stupid boy…it was his fault I was here.
A voice whispered in the back of my mind. This time I thought it might be my conscience: Who was the stupid boy? It wasn’t Octavian.
“Shut up,” I murmured.
“What?” Nico asked.
“Jason and Piper are spending the school year in Los Angeles with Piper’s dad. They took Coach Hedge, Mellie, and Little Chuck with them.”
“Uh-huh.” I did not know those last three names, so I decided they probably weren’t important. “And the seventh hero…Leo Valdez?”
Nico raised his eyebrows. “You remember his name?”
“Of course! He invented the Valdezinator. Oh, what a musical instrument! I barely had time to master its major scales before Zeus zapped me at the Parthenon. If anyone could help me, it would be Leo Valdez.”
Nico’s expression tightened with annoyance. “Well, Leo isn’t here. He died. Then he came back to life. And if I see him again, I’ll kill him.”
Will elbowed him. “No, you won’t.” He turned to me. “During the fight with Gaea, Leo and his bronze dragon, Festus, disappeared in a midair fiery explosion.”
I shivered. After so many centuries driving the sun chariot, the term midair fiery explosion did not sit well with me.
I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Leo Valdez on Delos, when he’d traded the Valdezinator for information….
“He was looking for the physician’s cure,” I recalled, “the way to bring someone back from the dead. I suppose he planned all along to sacrifice himself?”
“Yep,” Will said. “He got rid of Gaea in the explosion, but we all assumed he died too.”
“Because he did,” Nico said.
“Then, a few days later,” Will continued, “this scroll came fluttering into camp on the wind….”
“I still have it.” Nico rummaged through the pockets of his bomber jacket. “I look at it whenever I want to get angry.”
He produced a thick parchment scroll. As soon as he spread it on the table, a flickering hologram appeared above the surface: Leo Valdez, looking impish as usual with his dark wispy hair, his mischievous grin, and his diminutive stature. (Of course, the hologram was only three inches tall, but even in real life Leo was not much more imposing.) His jeans, blue work shirt, and tool belt were speckled with machine oil.
“Hey, guys!” Leo spread his arms for a hug. “Sorry to leave you like that. Bad news: I died. Good news: I got better! I had to go rescue Calypso. We’re both fine now. We’re taking Festus to—” The image guttered like a flame in a strong breeze, disrupting Leo’s voice. “Back as soon as—” Static. “Cook tacos when—” More static. “¡Vaya con queso! Love ya!” The image winked out.
“That’s all we got,” Nico complained. “And that was in August. We have no idea what he was planning, where he is now, or whether he’s still safe. Jason and Piper spent most of September looking for him until Chiron finally insisted they go start their school year.”
“Well,” I said, “it sounds like Leo was planning to cook tacos. Perhaps that took longer than he anticipated. And vaya con queso…I believe he is admonishing us to go with cheese, which is always sound advice.”
This did not seem to reassure Nico.
“I don’t like being in the dark,” he muttered.
An odd complaint for a child of Hades, but I understood what he meant. I, too, was curious to know the fate of Leo Valdez. Once upon a time, I could have divined his whereabouts as easily as you might check a Facebook timeline, but now I could only stare at the sky and wonder when a small impish demigod might appear with a bronze dragon and a plate of tacos.
And if Calypso was involved…that complicated things. The sorceress and I had a rocky history, but even I had to admit she was beguiling. If she’d captured Leo’s heart, it was entirely possible he had gotten sidetracked. Odysseus spent seven years with her before returning home.
Whatever the case, it seemed unlikely that Valdez would be back in time to help me. My quest to master the Valdezinator’s arpeggios would have to wait.
Kayla and Austin had been very quiet, following our conversation with wonder and amazement. (My words have that effect on people.)
Now Kayla scooted toward me. “What did you guys talk about in the Big House? Chiron told you about the disappearances…?”
“Yes.” I tried to avoid looking in the direction of the woods. “We discussed